Henry Favell & The Boer War

Private Henry favell - coldstream guards

Henry Favell was born in Hemingford Grey, Huntingdonshire in 1867.  He was the third child of William, an Agricultural Labourer and his wife Frances who lived in the High Street of this small village.  Living next door was Henry’s uncle Stephen Favell (my Great x4 Grandfather) with his family of seven children.  Amongst Henry’s seven cousins was George, who he would remain close to throughout his life, and it is that relationship that enabled the telling of his story.  It is also probably the main spur in starting my family history research. By the age of fourteen Henry was employed as a Farm labourer like his Father and then became a Game Keeper.  But at the age of 20 he travelled to London and signed up for a life in the Army. 

High Street Hemingford Grey
Coldstream Guards Drum Major

henry enlists

In September 1888 Henry joined The Coldstream Guards for a total of 12 years-service.  The first 3 would be in the Army and the remaining 9 in 1st class reserve, meaning he could be recalled if needed in an emergency.  Private H. Favell 7525 Coldstream Guards was described as 5′ 9″ tall, weighing 9 stone 10 pounds with grey eyes a fair complexion and two scars immediately above the nose.  His weight would certainly not suggest that he was ‘robust’.  Like many others of his generation, a life in the army may not have been a first choice, but simply an escape from poverty and unemployment.  Life in the army for a Private was unglamorous and harsh, but at least it provided regular food, clothing and accommodation.  Regular soldiers of the time were generally drawn from the poorest elements of society and concern was regularly expressed at the fitness standard of recruits who were often under nourished.

1st term of service

After two years service, Henry was granted additional Good Conduct pay of one penny and he seems to have kept his nose clean judging by his service record.  The 1891 census shows that he was based in London at the Wellington Barracks near St James’ Park.  His first term of service was completed in September 1891 and I suspect that he then remained in London and lived near, or possibly with, his cousin George who by now lived not far away in Camden Town.  On 26th July 1897 in Trinity Church Hampstead, he married Isobella Sophia Wilkins. Henry was 28, living in St Pancras and employed as a Porter.  Sophia was living in Hampstead, her Father was recently deceased and had been a Carpenter living at Gloucester Road, St Pancras.  After only two years of marriage, the Army was back knocking at Henry’s door.

Coldstream Guardsman
Coldstream Guardsman
War Poster

called back to the colours

Over many years trouble had been brewing in the South African states.  The mining of gold and the discovery of diamonds led to friction between Dutch settlers, known as Boers, and European workers.  The Boers resented the large numbers of ‘outsiders’ drawn into the Boer run states by the large mining companies and feared that their influence was being weakened.  The neighbouring British states were also viewed as a potential threat with their garrisoned troops and their desire to control the Gold and Diamond mining.  Conflict also existed due to the Boers heavy reliance on slave native labour on both their farms and in the mines, while in British states it was outlawed.  On the 11th of September 1899, 24000 Boers from the Transvaal and Orange Free State invaded Natal while smaller forces laid siege to the British Garrison at Mafeking and at Kimberley in the centre of the diamond industry.

south africa 1899

To relieve their besieged forces and civilians, Great Britain prepared an invasion army with the ultimate aim of conquering the Boer states and bringing them under British rule.  Following the despatch of 10,000 British reinforcements during September, a further 47,000 men were prepared to leave England for South Africa.  Henry was recalled to army service under special army order on the 7th of October and posted to the 2nd battalion Coldstream Guards.  Henry’s army record shows his posting to South Africa commencing on the 21st October 1899.  The reinforcements faced demands for the relief of British forces under siege at Ladysmith that British & Colonial Regiments plus approximately 7,000 civilians.  More demands for relief were coming from Kimberley, also under siege.  The first priority on the newly arrived forces had originally been to advance on the Boer republics, but facing the siege situations, this was delayed.

Breakfast at camp in South Africa
Breakfast at camp in South Africa
On the March
On the March

to relieve kimberley

The force was divided.  30,000 men were sent to relieve Ladysmith under the command of Sir Redvers Buller, while a further 10,000, including the Coldstream Guards were sent to relieve Kimberley under the command of Major General Lord Methuen.  Methuen’s division was to advance along the line of the western railway towards Kimberley with the intention of clearing Boers from the northern districts of the Orange Free State.  The terrain was dry and dusty with the veldt broken only by rocky hills and outcrops known as ‘Kopjes’.  The railways were to prove extremely significant supply lines during the campaign, transporting men and equipment along with constant supplies of food, ammunition and other provisions.  Consequently, due to the difficulty in establishing other supply lines, including shortages of pack horses, the British armies rarely ventured far from the main railway lines unless it was absolutely necessary.

battle of belmont

Methuen’s force firstly drove the Boers from some high ground at Belmont where Henry would have his first experience of battle.  There were considerable casualties, particularly amongst the Guards who attacked in close order. The war against the Boers was turning out to be different than expected.  The Boers were not the tribesmen previously encountered in Africa, nor were they the traditional European organised army.  They were mostly unpaid non-professional soldiers aged between 16 and 60. The majority were farmers who were expert horsemen, well armed and highly manoeuvrable. They made full use of the terrain that they knew so well and had gained experience in commando style tactics while fighting against local tribesmen.  Set piece military manoeuvres were difficult against an enemy who didn’t follow the normal rules.  The British extended lines of communication were subject to sabotage from raiders who would often attack swiftly in small parties and then disappeared into the night.  The Boers would also dig themselves into trenches or emplacements on Kopjes and lie in wait to ambush the slow and conspicuous advance of the British Brigades.

Coldstream Guards service dress 1902
The Modder River Railway Bridge
The Modder River Railway Bridge

modder river

Although British military uniforms were now generally Khaki rather than the earlier conspicuous reds, officers had to discard their traditional swords and pistols as these made them readily identifiable to Boer snipers.  The high rate of officer casualties led to them being issued with rifles and to the removal of conspicuous badges of rank, which were replaced by outlines drawn directly onto their uniforms.  The Divisions next engagement was the Battle of Modder River, which took place on the 28th November 1899.  The Boers had dug themselves into slit trenches on low ground in front of the river to await the British Forces advance.  However, the British believed that the Boers had fled their position and they advanced towards the Modder River unaware of the 3,000 strong force who lay in wait.  The Boers opened fire when the advancing troops were within 1,000 yards from their trenches, cutting down anyone in the open.  British troops dived to the ground for cover amongst the scrub and attracted rifle fire if they so much as moved. The British Artillery opened fire on the Boer positions and throughout an ordeal lasting over ten hours soldiers were pinned down between the Boer trenches and their own artillery.


Temperatures rose during the day to 90 degrees in the shade and soldiers remained laying face down, hungry, thirsty and nibbled by ants.  Many, desperate for water were killed trying to crawl back to safety.  The Boer preparations had included the laying of conspicuous white marker stones to aid their riflemen’s’ range-finding and sniper fire was deadly accurate.  At times the constant rifle fire was described as sounding like the constant frying of fat.  Many men resorted to sleep to stave of the monotonous boredom while they waited for darkness which eventually halted the fighting.  By dawn the Boers had fled leaving behind 80 casualties against the British total of 460. Between the British Forces and Kimberley there now lay only one obstacle, a low ridge at Maggersfontien. On the 11th of December an attack was made under the cover of early morning darkness in drizzling rain.  From trenches at the foot of the slope a blaze of gunfire stopped the attack in its tracks.  Panic spread as the attacking force was cut down and battalions became hopelessly mixed.  Those that did not run were once again pinned down where they lay in the open to suffer the blazing sun all the following day.

Modder River
Troops pinned down at the Modder River
Coldstream Guards

driefontien & johannesburg

A counter attack from the Guards brigade and the Artillery being brought into play still failed to move the Boers.  The following day, the three Brigades of the attacking force were pulled back to the Modder River after suffering casualties numbering 968, of which 80% were from the Highland Brigade who had been involved in directly storming the higher ridge.  The Coldstream Guards who had advanced two miles over more level ground towards Boer pom-pom gun positions had been more fortunate.  The force remained on the defensive at the Modder River until the Boers evacuated Magersfontien some three months later as part of a general recoil when the main British force, now under the command of General Roberts, began to march on Kimberley from the west.  With Methuen’s force moving onto the offensive once more the Coldstream Guards were in action again on the 10th March 1900 at the battle of Driefontien and were present on the march into Johannesburg after its surrender on the 31st May.

battle of diamond hill

After a period of waiting for a Boer surrender, Henry was again in action with the Coldstream Guards at the Battle of Diamond Hill which took place on the 11th and 12th June 1900.  The British fighting force at the front had now been reduced to 16,000 men and the Boers managed to scrape together 5,000.  During the battle the British lost 180 men and the Boers finally fled from the field in high spirits and renewed hope of victory to come.  The Battle of Belfast, the last great battle of any size in the war, began on August 27th and again Henry was in action with the Coldstream Guards.  The Boer forces were defeated and two Divisions under General Buller continued to head northwards manoeuvring Boers out of a series of defences.  The Boer force now numbered less than 2,500 and concentrated on flight.  The war now became a series of minor skirmishes.  The smaller pockets of Boers who refused to surrender were pursued around the country, constantly melting away at the approach of British forces.  The Boers maintained their harrying commando tactics, constantly sabotaging communication lines and laying-in-wait for British patrols.  The chase was likened to the Lord Mayor’s procession trying to catch Highway-men on Hounslow Heath.

Storming a Kopje
Storming a kopje
Boer prisoners

inventing concentration camps

In a long campaign to finally force the Boers into surrender the states were divided up in a grid pattern.  Small Forts known as blockhouses, similar to later pill-boxes, were built and miles of barbed wire fencing thrown up along the grids.  With Boer movements restricted, the British army then set about the systematic clearing of areas.  To demoralise the Boers and deprive them of supplies and support, their farms were raided and burned.  Soldiers looted the properties confiscated any stock and rounded up the occupants.  In the first instance destitute Boer families were dispatched by the train load back to the Boer commandos stating that insufficient supplies could be found to support them due to constant attacks on the rail- roads.  This served to place an additional burden on the Boer soldiers, who previously highly mobile, now had to fend for dependants who joined them in the field.  In a later change of tactics during the September of 1900, Boer families were placed into concentration camps along with Boers taken prisoner and anyone else who might hamper the British operations.  by the end of the war 27,000 Boers and 14,000 Africans had died in the camps.  16,000 British troops had also died of disease.

No welcome home

It took a further two years before the war was finally over in 1902, but Henry remained in South Africa only until August 1901 after which time he had completed 1 year and 295 days in the war.  On arrival back in England he was posted to the 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards and was discharged on the 31st August 1901 after serving a further 20 days to complete his service period. He had been in the army either in service, or in reserve, for a total of 13 years, of which 8 years and 38 days were served with the Coldstream Guards.  His pay on discharge amounted to £9 along with a war gratuity of £5.  He was awarded the Queens South Africa Medal with Bars for :- Belmont; Modder River; Driefontien; Johannesburg; Diamond Hill; Belfast; and South Africa 1901.

The census for 1901 was taken on the 31st of March so Henry does not feature in it as he was out of the country on active service.  However, his wife Sophia is recorded and was living in Stafford Street Marylebone as a live in Housekeeper for Reginald Allen, a Solicitor. There is also a 13 year-old boy servant living in and a visitor, 2 year-old Alice E Favell who I presume is Sophia’s and Henry’s daughter.  My suspicion that Henry’s marriage did not survive the separation while he was in service in South is confirmed by the time of the 1911 census where Sophia is still living with Reginald Allen, but this time listed as his wife.  Reginald is now a 46 year-old retired Solicitor living in Brickfield road, Portswood, Southampton, with Sophia taking the Allen surname and young Alice Emily Mary now also using the Allen surname instead of Favell.  There are two more Allen children aged 8 and 7 who were born in Marylebone and Suffolk.  I doubt very much that Henry and Sophia were ever divorced and strongly believe that Alice was Henry’s child. 

Henry's Medal
Looking out into Kings Yard from the cottage
Looking out into Kings Yard from the cottage

Bayham Place

In 1911 Henry was living with his cousin George (my Great x2 Grandfather) at King’s Cottages, in King’s Yard, Bayham Place, Camden Town.  The census lists him and another younger man (Henry Pinder) as borders.  Also living in the cottage are George’s wife Ellen, daughter Lucy and niece May Read.  There were 5 cottages in the yard which was shared by the Monington Piano Factory.  Henry, now 43, is still listed as married and is working as a Baths Attendant.  The local Baths had been built in 1868 and had two swimming pools as well as bathing and wash house facilities.  they were very near to Kings Yard, on the other side of the piano factory.  It is likely that the family used the baths regularly as they catered for up to 145,000 visitors annually.  

the Parrs head

Alongside the Baths was the “Parr’s Head” Public House where Henry was a regular.  The Landlord was also a veteran of the Boer War and my Grandfather, who would have been about ten at the time, told me how he used to collect a cooked Sunday Dinner from his Grandmother and take it along for Henry to eat in the Pub.  He said the old soldier gave him a shilling a week for the errand.  He also told me that one of his first jobs when he left school had also been one of the dirtiest he had ever done, when he helped to clear out the boilers in the local swimming Baths and I know realise that this was probably also one of Henry’s ‘errands’.  Henry died in 1923 aged 59.  His Boer War Medal was passed on my Grandfather who kept it polished and proudly wore it to school on Empire Days.  In 1971 it came to me and later led me to ask the question who was “Harry”? as my Grandfather used to refer to him.

An outing from the Parr's Head 1922. Is Henry looking at us?